It’s twenty years ago, give or take, and a friend tells me a story.
It was about a friend of his—a woman with two teen-aged sons.
The older one, a high-school sophomore, was taking part in a school assembly when he announced to the hundreds present that he was gay.
It’s twenty years, give or take, later. And stories like this are the daily stuff of YouTube, the Huffington Post, the countless gay-teen-supportive websites that have done so much for so many. But when I heard it, back then, I didn’t know how to react. Not only had I never heard a story like it, I couldn’t imagine a story like it. Today, I’d hear that story and say, with a stifled yawn — “And ….?” But I didn’t say that, then. And then was not so long ago.
There was more. My friend’s friend, the boy’s mom, loving and well-meaning and famously accepting, announced, to her friends and whoever else happened to be listening that she had no problem with her kid’s out-of-the-blue announcement. As far as she was concerned, it was a blue that had always been there; she’d known, since he was a toddler, although prior to the assembly he’d never discussed it with her, or anyone. All she wanted was for him to be happy, to feel good about himself, and to always, always have safe sex.
Certain stories stick with you, if you’re a writer; the ones that become stones in your shoe are those that create an ache, an echo, call to mind something you didn’t live through, and wish you had. This story stuck for those give-or-take twenty years until I was able to shake it from my shoe and see that it wanted to turn into a novel, which it did, with my help, my first novel, These Things Happen. In the book, I tell the story of what happens when a 16-year-old boy, whom I call Theo, comes out in his school assembly, and how that reverberates in a handful of linked Manhattan lives—his own, his parents’, and—most significantly—his best friend’s.
So let’s hear from Theo. He’s smart, popular, a wise guy and a whiz at tae kwan do. When we meet him he’s just been elected president of his class, “swept in on a sea of change, like Obama”, as he puts it. His supporters cram the cafeteria. After the cheers fade, he makes his acceptance speech. Then, after he puts down the note cards, these words come out, and carry him, and the story, with them:
“I thank you for this mandate.” he says. “I shall try to lead wisely, but not annoyingly. But first, in the spirit of transparency and stuff like that, I’d like to say that not only am I your new President but also, quite frankly – I’m a gay guy.”
These words, as the story builds, will be life-changing, maybe most of all for Wesley, his straight best friend. But stick with Theo, for the moment. His parents, progressive, tolerant about everything, fly into supportive action, almost seeming to check off items on the list of What a Good Parent Does When Their Son Says He’s Gay. They call a family meeting at his favorite cupcake place. He can have two, if he likes, given the situation. His seven-year-old sister, jealous of the attention he’s getting, announces she’s gay, too. They verbalize their support in very loud voices so, as Theo can’t help thinking, all the other cupcake-eaters can hear them being wonderful.
Which they are! They mean to be, and they are. The ladies diplomatically disperse, so son and father can be alone, Theo’s dad takes him to his favorite dim-sum place in Chinatown, where he tearfully tells him that he’s his best friend. And Theo—well, he’s grateful to have parents like this, of course, but he’s also not quite sure. He tells us: “See, I knew I was lucky, that my mom and dad had cool gay friends whose weddings we went to, that they were like really worthy and modern, and all the stuff you want them to be. And still — I wished they’d been, just maybe, just a little upset. Like not to the point where I’d have to run away and be a male prostitute in Seattle, or not go to a good college, or any college, even. But just — a little upset.”
Now, there are a lot of Theo’s out there, and Theodora’s, and most of you who are reading this are parents to one, or the other. You may not be old enough, yourselves, to know just how much the world has changed since I was a Theo in the late 60’s, in those days before cell phones or moveable type. A gay person was hard for most people to imagine; a gay teen, unimaginable. A gay teen was, pretty much, unimaginable even to himself. That’s not true, now. So how lucky you are to live now, kids and parents both. But does the good luck of now make things easier for you? “Now” is a public story, the details of which we agree upon, together. It is optimistic, and a little arrogant about the pace of its own progress. But—say it again—that’s the public story, and isn’t the place we all actually live—well—private? In that private space, which is where we live with those we love, we need to determine what we think and feel independently from the world of Now; despite the hopeless backlog it creates, life seems to insist that you live it on a case-by-case basis. What’s the “right” way to behave, and what’s the “wrong” way, when your kid—and you—try to negotiate your way through what is still very tricky territory, no matter how many states approve gay marriage, and how many wise-cracking gay characters appear on TV?
I didn’t write These Things Happen because I had an answer; I’m just trying to stay awake till lunch time. I wrote it because I wanted to read it, and because I wished I’d been able to read a book like it when I was a kid going through what your kids are, which is the realization of a mostly unexpected truth about themselves—that there is a core part of their being whose specificity—they’re attracted to members of the same sex—will affect the choices they make and influence key aspects of their future. And I wrote it for you, too and, I see now, for my own parents, who did their best to accept and understand me with no support system to turn to except each other, who succeeded at that, who got many things wrong but, in the end, made it come out right, for the three of us. I wanted to tell a story about how awkwardness and mistakes and muddled good intentions are their own kind of triumph, the best you can hope for until time does the work it will do. And what is that work? Well, you wait and see. Time will say only I told you so, in the words of W.H. Auden, and he’s right, I think. Until then, people always want to know how you’re “doing” when you’re in the midst of an event—a death, a divorce, a kid coming out—that has changed you and your family, in ways you can’t yet fully know. Because they care about you, they want you to tell them you’re doing “well” —which isn’t possible, and is not a goal. So—do it wrong! Do it badly. Follow the terrible example of the people in my book, if you need to (Spoiler: they make it work in the end). Wait, watch, listen, and forgive yourself, every step of the way. Because your kids will. Because—try to trust me here, as I’ve lived this—they already have.
Richard Kramer is an American film and television writer and producer, playwright and novelist. His film and television credits include thirtysomething, Family, My So-Called Life, Once and Again, Queer as Folk and Tales of the City. His first novel, These Things Happen, tells the story of what happens when a 16-year-old boy, whom he calls Theo, comes out in his school assembly, and how that reverberates in a handful of linked Manhattan lives.
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